SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 128 - May 2009

Art and revolution

What is the relationship between art and revolution? What is culture? How would art develop in a socialist society? These and many other issues were discussed at a commission at the CWI summer school held in Gent, Belgium, in 2008. This article is the introduction by MANNY THAIN to that discussion.

THE WORLD IS based on a class system where a small minority dominates, exploiting the majority, the working class and poor. Not only through control of the economic system. It also uses the main levers of the state, which include the education system, mass media and cultural activity. That does not mean that it has complete control. There has never been a regime in history that could stop people thinking and creating. One of the greatest characteristics of human beings is our thirst for freedom, self-expression and rebellion. Nonetheless, the art produced in any society is part of that society and, in one way or another, reflects that society.

That is clear under dictatorial regimes, for example Stalinist and fascist dictatorships, in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or in today’s North Korea. Art is employed directly in the service of those regimes, regulated, censored, made to order by the state. Under parliamentary democracy, like Europe, the US, etc, the control is more subtle, and freedom of expression is greater. Still, the capitalist system controls the main artistic outlets, mass media, universities, etc. Art is part of the system. All is part of capitalist, or bourgeois, culture. When we use the term ‘bourgeois culture’ in this way, we mean everything that makes up the capitalist system: all fields of human activity – from factory production to the legal system, to producing TV programmes – which together make this society a capitalist society.

Workers and oppressed people can and do make use of that culture for our own ends: to promote struggle, denounce oppression, mobilise, raise consciousness, and to help bring about change. Many examples could be cited: the poster art of the revolutionary students in France 1968, instantly recognisable, iconic images of that revolutionary struggle; Pablo Picasso’s painting, Guernica, the powerful outburst denouncing the bombing by fascist forces of that Basque town in April 1937, and which is one of the images which capture the whole of the Spanish civil war and revolution. There are thousands of other examples. The capitalist ruling class did not create rap music or the blues. Capitalists could not have created them – though, of course, big business and the system eventually incorporated and profited from them.

From revolutionary freedom…

A TIME OF revolution is a great time for the development of art. The new workers’ state set up in the Soviet Union after the Russian revolution in 1917 triggered an incredible wave of artistic energy. Many artists, writers and architects embraced the revolution as the workers’ state opened up universities, schools, studios, museums and galleries. Resources were made available on the basis of the nationalised planned economy which enabled them to help design, promote and defend this new revolutionary world. To express it and to express themselves. And to begin to empower the working class to develop themselves.

To give a couple of examples. In 1919, the Museum of Artistic Culture was set up. It brought together modern art, European and Asian art, religious icons, historical artefacts and folk art to reflect the diverse nature, ethnicity and history of the Soviet Union. Its director in 1923 was Kazimir Malevich, a groundbreaking artist, who wanted it to be an experimental – today, we might say interactive – museum ‘for the broad mass of the people’. The Lomonsov porcelain factory worked with a student art movement with the intention of ‘bringing good design to the masses’. In the early years of the revolution there were thousands of such initiatives.

However, the museum was closed down in 1926, an ominous sign of future developments. In fact, by 1932 the state had closed many such institutions and artistic organisations. In 1934 Joseph Stalin launched ‘socialist realism’ in art, and ‘proletarian literature’.

… to Stalinist straitjacket

THE STALINISED Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship resting on the economic basis of a nationalised planned economy. It was a political counter-revolution against the socialist Russian revolution led by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and the Bolshevik party. This new workers’ state eventually became a brutal regime run by command from the top by a bureaucratic elite which strangled all elements of workers’ control and democracy. This was because the revolution was isolated in an economically and culturally under-developed country. As Lenin and Trotsky constantly pointed out, it is impossible to build socialism in one country given the interconnectedness of the world’s economies. A prerequisite for Russia to develop as a genuine, democratic workers’ state was the help of other, more highly-developed workers’ states. Unfortunately, the revolutionary wave immediately following the Russian revolution did not result in the consolidation of other workers’ states, and Russia remained isolated.

With regard to cultural development, Trotsky writes in his classic analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union, The Revolution Betrayed (1937), of a "concentration camp of the arts". He detailed the process by which the bureaucracy was able to strengthen its grip on power. An essential part of that was the suppression of artistic expression.

Even under Stalinism, however, people cannot be totally suppressed. Trotsky writes of art being smuggled out under the noses of the censors like contraband, illegal goods. We can see that later in the satirical films, theatre and literature in Czechoslovakia and other eastern European regimes.

Stalin used art to help consolidate the position of the bureaucratic regime. And, as with all dictatorships, language was used to confuse, not to clarify. So ‘socialist realism’ was neither socialist nor a depiction of life as it was experienced by the mass of the population. It was art for the sole purpose of glorifying Stalin and the system he represented. This raises the complicated issue of the relationship between artists and dictatorial systems, which there is no time to go into in this introduction.

A complicated relationship

ANOTHER ASPECT RELATES to the nature of art itself. Art develops through history. As with society there are periods of gradual progression, stagnation, regression and sudden leaps forward. The early twentieth century was a time of great artistic development, experimentation and dynamism. It was a time of incredible scientific and technological advances, mass production technique, new materials and revolutionary theory in science, art, engineering, politics – everything. In the west it was a time of great optimism: that science and technique, linked to social advances, could take humanity forward. The first world war shattered that dream, as this technical revolution in the hands of the capitalist system also proved itself capable of producing death and destruction on an industrial scale.

We had seen the development of cubism by Picasso and Georges Braque, then futurism in the early 1910s. Then, with the Russian revolution, a new dynamism burst forward. Futurism in Russia was an important link to the development of abstract art and several other isms, all connected to that dynamic period. Yet, although various schools of art came out of that period of technological progress, war and the greatest revolution in history, they were artistic forms and movements, no more, no less. So futurism in the Russian context was part of the revolutionary wave. A few years later, however, Italian futurism was backing Mussolini’s fascist movement.

Surrealism was a revolutionary artistic movement from 1924. It was based on the idea that the whole of humanity will only be truly free after the socialist revolution. Yet one of the leading surrealists was the pioneering photographer, Man Ray. Much of his work can only be described as pornographic, exploitative sexual images of women – not revolutionary, in fact, reactionary. Another leading surrealist was Salvador Dalí, before his eventual expulsion from the movement by André Breton. Many words can and have been used to describe Dalí. He was a commercial self-publicist who backed Franco against republican Spain and the revolution in the 1930s. That did not stop him producing some very powerful and moving paintings of the civil war, and some technically brilliant, imaginative and innovative art.

One of the co-founders of surrealism, Louis Aragon, went over to Stalinism, voluntarily walking into the artistic concentration camp, while Breton and others moved over to Trotsky’s side in the fight against Stalinism and fascism. Picasso was a revolutionary artist and socialist. But he only joined the Communist Party in 1944, a late date to join that party. He gave a lot of money and works of art to fund the CP. And he never publicly criticised the military suppression on the orders of Russia’s Stalinist bureaucracy of the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968.

So it can get a bit complicated. It shows that we cannot judge art by the political affiliation of the artist. Of course, the context in which a particular piece of art is produced, information on the artist and his or her life and times, etc, can be useful tools in understanding any artistic work. Trotsky said that art should be judged, first and foremost, by the rules of art. He did not write down a list of what those rules were! He also said that art must be free from state control. And we can see that most clearly expressed in the Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art, which he produced with Breton and Diego Rivera in 1938. (See Surrealism’s revolutionary heart, Socialism Today No.120, July-August 2008) That formed part of his international campaign against fascism and Stalinism which included the formation of the Fourth International.

Class and culture

SOME ON THE left have quite a fixed view of art and lay down rules on what should be seen, heard and liked, as well as what should not. That’s wrong. Individual personal taste plays a big part. Of course, we should try to understand, and have every right to comment and criticise. But not in an elitist, proscriptive way.

I began by mentioning bourgeois, capitalist culture, and that it can be used and subverted by workers. Does that mean that there is any such thing as proletarian culture? Trotsky raises this in Literature and Revolution, written over 1922 and 1923, and published as a book in 1924. Trotsky explained that bourgeois culture developed over centuries within the old feudal system as the bourgeoisie itself developed within that system. Remember that culture means everything making up the nature of a particular system.

The capitalists could do that because they were a property-owning class. Within feudalism the rising bourgeoisie owned workshops and other means of production – alongside production owned and controlled by the feudal powers – its merchants amassed great wealth and international connections. The rising capitalists funded universities and schools, patronising art, at the same time as the existent ruling class – the monarchs, religious bodies and other feudal institutions – was doing likewise.

The working class, however, has no property in the sense of owning the means of producing wealth. So, although it can take from bourgeois culture what it can use, it cannot develop its own culture within capitalism, in the same way that bourgeois culture was able to take root within the feudal system. Of course, in using bourgeois culture it gives it its own flavour, colour and character, but that is not the same thing.

In addition, it should be noted that artistic expression does not follow rigid rules according to the economic foundations of any particular system. There is a much more fluid relationship and connection. Human imagination is more than capable of pushing back the boundaries, going beyond the limits, imagining and inventing new revolutionary methods, forms and systems.

A workers’ state and socialism

THE WORKING CLASS has to overthrow capitalism before it can begin to create an alternative to bourgeois culture. And it would do that on the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, and a democratic, socialist plan of production. Art under a workers’ state – as glimpsed temporarily after the Russian revolution – and every other aspect of life would begin to be freed from the restrictions of capitalist exploitation. The length of the working week could be cut dramatically as society’s wealth is ploughed back into society. People would have the necessary time to participate in the running of society, and to pursue the activities they want to pursue.

However, a workers’ state is not like a capitalist state. A state is an instrument of repression by one class over another. A capitalist state is the means by which a small minority keeps the vast majority subjected and exploited. A workers’ state is the means by which the vast majority stops the small minority of former rulers taking power back, and it lasts as long as that threat exists. Therefore, by its very nature, a workers’ state is a temporary, transitional form of state. In a healthy workers’ state which is part of an expanding international revolution, state power will decrease as the threat of capitalist counter-revolution decreases. Eventually, in a worldwide socialist society, the state apparatus dies away. This is explained by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and by Lenin in State and Revolution (1917). Eventually, all class division disappears and all people become equal – as human beings.

Therefore, to talk of ‘workers’ culture’ in a classless society is meaningless. Stalin talked of ‘proletarian culture’ alongside the launch of socialist realism and proletarian literature. This was at the same time as he declared that socialism had been achieved in one country – the Soviet Union. That is a contradiction in terms. It was only possible to talk like this because the revolution had been isolated in the Soviet Union for a relatively long period of time. ‘Workers’ culture’, in other words, was the product of the political counter-revolution against the socialist revolution.

Another important aspect not covered is how we can use art in our work of building the revolutionary party and popularising the ideas of socialism. It would be good if that could be brought into the discussion. There are many examples which could be included. To give one, at the beginning of the 1970s in Chile, Victor Jara and his theatre group and musicians toured the shantytowns and villages, using song, dance and plays to teach people to read and write. They also explained socialist ideas and built support for the radical left-wing government of Salvador Allende. His government nationalised the main publishing houses, making literature – everything from Shakespeare to modern Latin American writers – available at very low prices. In Europe today our main role may not be to teach the masses to read and write, but how can we use similar initiatives to get our alternative across? In much of the neo-colonial world, of course, Victor Jara’s methods could be applied directly.

Socialism is about freeing up the arts, society and the whole of humanity. It is about creating a world for equal human beings, united and with society’s resources collectively harnessed to allow all people to live life to the full: to run society, to study, travel and create, to invent, enjoy and love. Under those conditions artistic expression, and all other forms of expression, would be totally liberated. Class-based culture, in fact, would give way to human culture. When we talk about art and revolution that is what our revolution is all about.


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